Luis and Maria Vazquez with their children at their home in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

This reporting is a collaboration between The Oaklandside and Oakland’s Spanish-language reporting lab, El Tímpano.

For the last five years, Luis Vázquez, 53, his wife María, 50, and their two teenage children have shared a small one-bedroom apartment in the Castlemont neighborhood of deep East Oakland. In that time, the Vázquezes have worked hard to provide for their family, with Luis picking up a restaurant job at Reem’s in Fruitvale and Maria selling tamales around the corner on 34th Avenue. 

But when the first stay-at-home order was issued on March 19 last year, food workers were among the hardest hit by closures. Reem’s shut down in April before reopening as a takeout-only kitchen with Luis’ work hours cut by half. Meanwhile, the switch to remote learning for their children meant Maria had to stay home to be with her kids and could no longer work.

It took less than two weeks of lost income for the couple, who live paycheck-to-paycheck, to be unable to pay their rent in April. 

This scenario, playing out across the city and country last spring, spurred policymakers to pass eviction moratoriums and fund rent relief programs. Oakland’s eviction moratorium, which was adopted by the City Council last March, prohibits landlords from evicting tenants even if they haven’t paid rent. It also prohibits late fees. The only exceptions are for when a tenant poses a threat to the health and safety of other occupants, or if the property is being removed from the market for 10 years under the Ellis Act. When the city’s moratorium first passed, Councilmember Nikki Fortunado Bas hailed it as “California’s strongest.” 

But while the moratorium has caused official evictions in Oakland to plummet, it hasn’t prevented some property managers from making verbal or tacit threats of eviction. The Vázquez family has faced threats of eviction from their landlord, and they are among more than a dozen immigrant renters who have told El Tímpano that neither tenant protections nor local and state rental assistance programs are working for them.

Although his family has struggled to keep up with the cost of food and housing, Vázquez said that last June he offered his landlord nearly two months worth of rent and late fees—something he was only able to do by taking out a loan—and asked for more time to pay the additional month of back rent. But the landlord gave the family an ultimatum: Pay the rent debt in full or leave.

“He hasn’t accepted any payments,” said Vázquez, “because he says it needs to be all or nothing.”

Vázquez and his landlord hit a stalemate and the rent went unpaid. With each passing month, said Vázquez, his landlord would threaten him with eviction, all the while anticipating the end of Oakland’s moratorium and state protections.

In November, after state lawmakers adopted California’s Tenant, Homeowner and Small Landlord Relief and Stabilization Act of 2020 (AB 3088), his landlord sent him a 15-day pay or quit notice. Landlords throughout the state can use these 15-day notices to evict tenants, unless the renters can prove that they’ve been financially affected by COVID-19. There’s been confusion in cities like Oakland around whether landlords can use these notices because local eviction moratoriums extend stronger protections to all tenants, regardless of whether they’ve been affected by COVID-19 or not. Consequently, many local attorneys understand them to be illegal threats. Meanwhile, Vázquez himself understood the document to be an eviction action.

When asked to comment on his intention of serving Vázquez the 15-day pay or quit notice, Juan Heredia, the landlord whose name and signature appears on the document, said he plans to take the family to eviction court. 

“It’s a basic notice and anyone who can read will understand it,” said Heredia. “They’re going to go in front of a judge and that judge will decide.”

The document stipulates that Vázquez must agree to provide proof of COVID-related financial distress in order to be protected from eviction. But according to Oakland’s local moratorium, tenants aren’t required to provide proof of a reduced income to avoid eviction. Meanwhile, the document states that even if Vázquez agrees and signs, he can still be sued by his landlord for failure to pay rent.

Vázquez didn’t sign out of confusion and fear that it could be used against him in court. And tensions have gotten worse in the months since. Now, he said every interaction with the landlord feels threatening. 

“The last time he came around he asked me cynically, ‘Why haven’t you left?’” said Vázquez. 

Heredia did not deny Vázquez’s claims of receiving multiple verbal and implied threats of eviction from him personally. He said he’s asserting his rights as a landlord. 

“If you want to have an eviction on your file for 10 years, that’s your choice,” said Heredia. “Whatever the law brings to this tenant is going to be the same for everybody. They will have their rights just like I will have my rights.”

For eviction to be legally carried out, a notice must be filed with the city. But it’s impossible to know how many Oakland renters have received verbal or informal threats and have been displaced as a result. Advocates say that tenants unfamiliar with their rights or afraid to exert them have become the most vulnerable. 

“In the majority of cases it’s people who are undocumented, so they are easy targets for landlords,” said Emma Paulino, director of organizing and leadership for Faith in Action. Stories from immigrant tenants like Vázquez, she said, have become common in the East Bay since the pandemic began.

For now, Vázquez is following the counsel he’s received from the legal aid nonprofit, Centro Legal de la Raza. “They’ve told me not to be afraid or run away,” said Vázquez. “I told my landlord that I know my rights.”

“If there’s no enforcement, it’s meaningless”

While the Vázquez family is staying put, Dinora Hernandez, 39, is desperately seeking housing for herself, her husband, and their three kids. Since immigrating from El Salvador two years ago, Hernandez’s family has shared a two bedroom apartment with her sister, brother-in-law, and their two children on 90th Avenue. 

“They gave me somewhere to live,” said Hernandez, who pays $600 for her family’s bedroom. “But we’re not on the contract.”

Circumstances like Hernandez’s are common among many low-income and undocumented families, who sometimes double or triple up on housing to cut down on costs. While Hernandez said the landlord has known about the living arrangement for more than a year, it didn’t pose a problem until just weeks ago. 

“The landlord came and told us that if I didn’t leave he would kick everyone out,” said Hernandez. 

Fearing that both families could lose their housing, they signed paperwork agreeing that Hernandez’s family would move out by June. She said his sudden demand didn’t give the family time to consult with a lawyer and consider their options. 

“He came here and didn’t leave until I signed it.”

Hernandez said she’s looking for another place to rent by next week but it’s difficult when housing costs are at an all-time high. With nowhere else to turn, they’ve considered living in their car. But with Hernandez being five months pregnant, even that is not an option.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” said Hernandez. “I have a little bit of money saved but this came as a surprise. I didn’t know this would happen to me.”

The city’s eviction moratorium expressly prohibits evictions even when tenants have broken the terms of their lease. But the pressure from landlords to move out, coupled with a lack of knowledge of tenant rights or a reluctance to exert them, means that legal rights alone are not enough to protect immigrant tenants from abuses. 

“There’s cultural barriers to pushing back against the system of property rights,” said Monique Berlanga, an attorney at Centro Legal de La Raza. “There’s fear of retaliation, fear of just drawing attention to your family or to your predicament.”

What’s more, said Berlanga, “There’s a lot of bad information out there on the idea that if your name is not on a written lease, you don’t have tenants rights. That’s absolutely not true.”

Centro Legal has played a crucial role in establishing Oakland’s moratorium and facilitating its rent relief program for tenants and landlords. Still, Berlanga estimates tenant complaints of harassment and illegal lockouts have increased 75% during the pandemic. 

“Every day we were getting calls and emails from tenants who didn’t know that there was a moratorium in place or that they couldn’t be evicted,” said Berlanga. “If there’s no enforcement, then it’s meaningless. Unfortunately, legal service providers are left to enforce the moratorium.”

Autumn King, a public information officer for the city of Oakland, said Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program has received a number of complaints from tenants who are concerned about property managers violating the city’s moratorium. King added that while the program is responsible for reviewing tenant-landlord disputes, it’s ultimately up to the courts to enforce the law when it comes to evictions.

Centro Legal is now working with Oakland’s City Attorney to get landlords to comply with the law. (Although the City Attorney is not involved in either Hernandez’s or Vázquez’s case, the office confirmed in a phone call that it is actively litigating similar actions by landlords that have violated the eviction moratorium.)

“My landlord says he won’t accept any of that”

In addition to the eviction moratorium, policymakers have established rental relief programs to prevent displacement and homelessness among tenants who have been hit hard by the pandemic. Oakland’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program and California’s COVID-19 Rent Relief are among several programs established for low-income tenants that allocate payments directly to landlords to make up for accrued rental debt. (Oakland’s program was put on pause on May 17 due to the high volume of applications. The city anticipates reopening it in the summer.)

When Vázquez heard about the rent relief last fall, he saw it as a way to get his debt under control and hold onto his family’s apartment. He turned to Centro Legal for help applying to the state’s programs. But applications ask for information and documentation from the tenant’s landlord, and despite numerous phone calls and emails to request a W-9 tax form, Vázquez said his landlord has refused to help.

Without those documents in his application, Vázquez could not receive the rent relief needed to pay off his debt, which was more than $6,000 when he applied. The money would have been paid directly to his landlord at 80% of what was owed, but according to Vázquez, the landlord refused to accept the money because he would not agree to forgive the remaining amount, one of the program terms.

Vázquez tried paying 25% of the back rent out of pocket to slow the growth of his debt. But each check he has mailed to his landlord, he said, has been returned.

An envelope Luis tried to send in to pay rent but was returned. Credit: Amir Aziz
Luis Vazquez holds up a returned envelope he’d sent to his landlord in an attempt to pay part of his rent. The addresses have been blurred. Credit: Amir Aziz

“One of the flaws with all of the rental assistance programming,” said Berlanga, “is that landlords have to agree to accept the rent.” 

In cases like the Vázquez family’s, that is bound to be a sticking point. “There’s clearly this animosity. There’s just bad relationships,” said Berlanga. And with renters denied the assistance that such relief programs promised, she said, “Now, people are frustrated.”

When asked to comment on Vázquez’s claims that Heredia is refusing to participate in rent relief programs and accept partial rent payments, Heredia criticized Vázquez for seeking assistance and referred to the end of the statewide eviction moratorium, which is currently set for June 30.

“At the end of the day, don’t expect that you’re going to live off of the government,” said Heredia. “We have a month until the end of June to find out what happens next.”

For now, lawyers like Berlanga say they’re trying to catch tenants before they’re forced to make decisions that can’t be easily fixed, like moving out or taking on debt.

“My hope is that a lot of what tenants are signing,” she said, referring to the sort of statements that both the Hernandez and Vázquez families have received, “will be unenforceable.”

But without thorough enforcement right now, tenants like Dinora Hernandez—who has already taken out a $2,000 loan in hopes of making a deposit on a new apartment—are on their own.

“Some of that stuff will be fixed,” said Berlanga. “What won’t be will be the tenants who have moved out already or the tenants who have incurred significant debt.”

Support for this reporting comes from Renaissance Journalism’s Equity and Health Reporting Initiative, with funding from The California Endowment.

Héctor Alejandro Arzate is El Tímpano’s Health & Housing Reporting Fellow. He was raised in Richmond, California. He studied criminology and journalism at Humboldt State University, where he wrote for the school's bilingual newspaper and produced newscasts for the student radio station. His stories have appeared in the California Report Magazine at KQED, 1A by WAMU and NPR, and DCist in Washington D.C. When he’s not writing or producing, you can find him cooking, fly fishing, or working on his jump shot.